Kathryn and Craig Hall were already building an exquisite boutique winery below their home above Auberge du Soleil in 2003 when they found an opportunity they couldn’t pass up: The huge but dilapidated Napa Valley Co-op Winery in St. Helena was for sale.
They bought the 33-acre property with its huge winery building from Golden State Vintners, and immediately started plans to turn it into one of Napa Valley’s destination wineries.
The ugly warehouse-type structure was covered with worn corrugated metal, the property was paved and the site was home to numerous giant tanks.
“We wanted to create a warm and friendly place where visitors could really enjoy Napa Valley and our wines,” Kathryn Hall said. The Halls were driven by a desire to make some of California’s best wines, a love of art and architecture — and a sense of history.
Indeed, hidden in the pile of metal was the 1885 Bergfeld stone winery. Worse for wear and missing a roof, the historic winery built by William Peterson (Bergfeld chiseled out Peterson’s name to add his own) was a link to Napa’s past.
A decade later, after a deep recession and an initial controversy, the Halls’ vision is almost complete.
They still have a few finishing touches, like removing a nondescript distillery building that blocks a view of the new winery, but they are offering sneak previews of the property and will move the tasting room into the new facility and open fully in the spring.
The property now includes the large barrel chai completed in 2008, the renovated Bergfeld winery and the new state-of-the-art gravity-flow winery combining the best of the past and the future.
But if you remember the initial announcement about the plans for Hall winery, you’ll note what is missing: It had called for a visitor center designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. With swoops of bright metal, a concept that neighbors hated, it quickly became controversial. It was also not clear that the material was durable.
That building was derailed by various concerns including economic realities, but primarily because the Halls recognized that they wanted to focus on their wines and winery, rather than create an attraction that had little to do with their wines.
Instead, they integrated the visitor experience into the production winery.
You enter on the first floor, where floor-to-ceiling windows highlight the tanks and presses and emphasize the purpose of the building.
Upstairs, a dramatic visitor center overlooks the Mayacamas Mountains and vineyards on the property. “Our visitor experience is oriented to the outside to let visitors enjoy the hills, the vineyards and the gardens,” Hall said.
Like the rest of the winery, even production spaces, it showcases the Halls’ love and support for contemporary art.
The winery is all about the wine, however, with 160 tanks, most under 10 tons, to allow the winemaking team under director of wine maker Steve Leveque to separately ferment wines from many sources, including the Hall’s 500 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties.
The winery also produces Walt Pinot Noirs from other areas; that brand is named after Kathryn Hall’s family, which owned a large vineyard in Mendocino County.
Winery president Mike Reynolds, who was winemaker at Schramsberg Vineyards where the wines result from complex blends, notes that Hall produced more than 300 batches for tasting this year. “Having this many tanks allows us to give each grape source the respect it deserves,” he said.
The second floor in the production part of the winery allows the crew to dump grapes into the tanks by gravity; in an attempt reduce damage, the grapes and clusters aren’t pumped.
Reynolds and his team built flexibility into the facility to incorporate changes yet to come, and that paid off: Since the time the project started, a big change has occurred in grape handling.
Large open spaces on the second floor were provided to sort grapes, but a new Bucher Vaslin optical sorter on the ground floor produces pristine berries to dump in the tanks.
“Sorting is one of the biggest changes in winemaking,” Reynolds said. “Removing 1 to 2 percent of unsuitable material like rotten grapes, stems and leaves has a huge impact. Remember that 1 or 2 percent added to a blend can change the flavor. This is comparable — and the flavors are undesirable, not a different grape profile.”
Though the optical sorters and computer-controlled heating and cooling of tanks are new technologies, the gravity flow highlights the appreciation for tradition, as does the use of spontaneous fermentation and the lack of filtering and even fining.
Though designed for optimum winemaking, the facility is also designed to the highest standards of sustainability. The original barrel building was gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, and the new winery is built to the same standards.
The same can’t be said about the Bergfeld building, but it was restored for barrel storage and events. The new top floor siding looks original, and the floor upstairs is the original, too, though they’ve covered the drain with plastic to avoid accidents. It, like the visitor center, has large windows overlooking the vineyards and a space for events.
A culinary center can be used for classes, too, and there are private rooms for special wine tastings as well. The present tasting room will remain in another role.
The new facility is an elaborate winery to produce 60,000 cases of wine each year; the original permit was for 2.5 million gallons, though that was halved when the Halls applied to make the changes. Reynolds notes that the winery is unlikely to expand that much, however. “That volume of wine is inconsistent with the type of wine we make.”
Is all the effort — and obvious expense — worth it?
And how do the Halls feel about having two wineries? Craig Hall admits that they probably wouldn’t have built the small one in Rutherford if they knew what was ahead. The company continues to make some top wines there, however, and it’s everyone’s vision of a top boutique winery.